Community: The Gender Episode

One of the things that separates comedies like Community from, let's say, The Rules of Engagement is that the writers on Community always take the jokes one step further. Not in terms of class or extremes, but structure: the punch line is usually just a set-up to the real punch line. We got quite a bit of that last night on the solid "Aerodynamics of Gender," which continually evolved the jokes in both story lines -- Abed briefly becomes a mean girl with the ladies, Troy and Jeff find peace in a secret trampoline garden -- to the point where they passed predictability and went into a kind of absurd glory. Only Pierce felt unused, more a tool to bring down Troy and Jeff's good time than a legitimate player in their world, but still, another good outing for the series.

The A-story featured the latest stunt casting: Hilary Duff as Megan, the leader of a cruel clique of girls who look way too well-dressed to be cruising through community college. Duff is probably a very nice young woman, but she's not known for her ability to act well, so it's no surprise she didn't have much to say or do in this episode besides look bitchy and don't fall down. She and her friends snapped at Britta, Annie, and Shirley, who found comfort in listening to Abed describe them in similarly scathing terms. Except Abed wasn't trying to be mean; he's just got a filter problem. This was a great way to reinforce Abed's general weirdness -- he never quite fits in -- but also to go a little further and highlight just how inane teenage catfights can be. He finally realized this and fed Megan some lines in which she scolded him for being unfeeling, restoring a sense of order to the school's cliques.

The hinge of the episode was that the women wanted to take a women's studies class by themselves and bond, only to see it fall apart in squabbling, while they left the men to fight over pick-up basketball games, only to discover true inner peace. Having Troy and Jeff find the secret garden with a trampoline was completely unexpected but so right for this show, even if Pierce's desire to tag along and fit in felt a little thin. Some of the best moments included their discovery after the fact that Joshua, the keeper of the garden, was a total racist, and their re-examination of his seemingly innocuous statements went from funny to amazing when Joshua showed off his swastika tattoo and claimed, "It's going to be a maze." Replaying his old dialogue was the expected thing to do; turning the guy into a calm neo-Nazi could only happen at Greendale.

Scattered thoughts:

• My favorite extra-beat joke of the night was Abed's: "It's Wednesday. Sometimes I eat in Jeff's car. Don't tell him."

• It's always jarring in gender-centered episodes when the women call each other "guys."

• Pierce felt pretty extraneous in this episode, but I did like the scene of him and Leonard using the computer. Nice "zoom/enhance" jokes with a reveal that he wasn't even looking at pictures, just an online instruction book for how to download them from his toy helicopter's spy camera.

• Even though Chang is no longer the group's teacher, he still gets plenty of screen time. He's turning into a really well-done wacky neighbor type, especially when it comes to giving snaps. (His gleeful laughs as the women insulted each other recalled his "he went there" bit for Jeff from last week's episode.) Ken Jeong's better at this character than anything else he's done, and I love that he just keeps wandering around the edges of this crazy little place.

• The tags this season seem to be splitting time between new material and callbacks to great ones from last year. Case in point: the welcome return of "Troy and Abed in the Morning":

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